Michael Payne has edited a collection of previously unpublished poems by the late Joan Downar. London Grip’s poetry editor takes a look at its frank and largely autobiographical contents.


downarVarious Returns
Joan Downar (edited by Michael Payne)
Shoestring Press
ISBN 978 1 910323 02 1
pp 68   £9

This appears to be the season for poetic resurrection and rehabilitation.  There is currently considerable excitement about a forthcoming Bloodaxe compilation of poetry by the late Rosemary Tonks; but Shoestring Press had already established a trend at the end of 2013 by publishing an excellent retrospective selection from the poetry of Brian Jones.  Now the same publisher is offering a collection of unpublished poems from Joan Downar who died in 1996, some seven years after the appearance of her last book from Peterloo.

Joan Downar’s poetic career began in about 1976 and her work appeared in major journals including Encounter and Poetry Review.  She also won the Stroud International Competition in 1982.  Peterloo Press published two of her collections: The Empire of Light (1984) and The Old Noise of Truth (1989). Various Returns – chosen and edited by Michael Payne – draws on the large number of poems that remained unpublished at the time of her death. The book also includes Payne’s brief but helpful biographical notes about the poet.  These notes precede groups of poems which relate to specific incidents in Downar’s later life – in particular, her marriage and the illness and eventual death of her husband, Albert Appleton.

Downar’s poems in this collection are chiefly rooted in her own experience and observations.  Even when her writing moves away from the personal and domestic it appears to have been triggered initially by something she herself has seen – a monument, for instance or a newspaper item.  The poems are usually quite formally shaped and metrically quite regular; and they often use rhyme or half-rhyme in a confident and straightforward way.  In fact, ‘straightforward’ might be a good word to use to describe most of the work in this book.  There is not much here that will puzzle the reader.  But that is not to say that the poems lack imagination: there is plenty of originality of language and imagery here; but the originality is of the kind that provokes pleasurable recognition at the aptness of a comparison rather than the sort that takes one aback.

The book begins, fittingly enough, with some poems about childhood.  The first, appropriately entitled ‘Nursery Rhyme’, gives a catalogue of terrors with which humankind has alarmed itself across the centuries, beginning with the supernatural but finishing with the all too man-made cloudy mushroom.  More gentle is a recollection in the voice a great-grandmother who acknowledges that I carry my age about / like a curator.  ‘Mother’s Return’ imagines a dead parent’s reappearance in an empty cane chair

Then her face, her body’s where
was complicated cane.  I must
have made her come.

More pale and thin than life
this image of my grief
with its underweb of cane.

The theme of returning ghostly visitors also occupies the title poem which comes at the very end of the book and anchors a persistent elegiac sense that runs through the poems.

The book’s second section is entitled ‘Country Living’ and features narrative and descriptive poems.  A vivid picture of stubble burning – the trickle and hiss of running fire – is followed soon after by a more sinister meditation on a bonfire’s flame which picks at the guy who folds / over in pain, alive.  The plight of a trapped bird is another theme that occurs more than once, for instance in a poem about the funeral of a lonely old woman (shades of Eleanor Rigby perhaps):

A prisoner swallow cracks
again and again against the Victorian shell
of coloured glass.

The sections of the book which deal with Downar’s marriage, bereavement and widowhood feature poems which celebrate Albert’s fruit and vegetable growing as well as others expressing regret that illness has left him knowing the scribble / of new growth in the garden’s escaped his grasp.  Downar writes often of the sick bed she shared with her ailing husband

Reaching out to you in the middle of the night
I touch your back; the cotton’s soaked and slippery
and hot; all the little channels let
go their structure as if you’d melt

While writing sympathetically about the invalid she thinks too of her own position with an apprehension that many readers may recognize from their own experience.

I rehearsed my sorrow, knew the vacancy of loss,
Thought of my friends the widows with tenderness.

At length the inevitable end comes and she commends Albert to

… private Hiroshima
your ashes spread

under your roses, your shadow burned
on my skin, indelible
for light-years

And yet she moves on; and one Sunday morning

…  the sun slices its blade
clean across the kitchen, cuts
it in half, shaves my bent head,
and I murmur ‘My darling, my darling’,
not knowing which departed love
– there are several now – I name.

Among such perceptive and frank accounts of loss there are one or two more elusive and mysterious pieces such as ‘What’s Left’ in which The intruders came again last night. … I thought they’d go / without the books, my raw squeezed/ words.  And even when they have left I was not released:  / heavy as gold the dangerous host / of possessions in my head.  Such pieces seem rather out of place and might have fitted better in the book’s closing section of occasional poems.  Of these perhaps the best is ‘War Jaw’ which takes the form of an easy-going conversation between the spirits of long-dead soldiers buried in a Civil War battlefield and begins

Whose leg is this? Dear chap,
I think it must be mine
and this would be your hand.
An unfortunate mishap
to be thus met …

This is an enjoyable collection by a poet new to me but whom I have been glad (belatedly) to meet.  It would be pleasing to think that the appearance of this posthumous collection of unpublished work could be a trigger for the re-release of Downar’s earlier books.  Alas, for that to happen the still-missed Peterloo Press might also have to experience a resurrection….

Michael Bartholomew-Biggs